Freedom of Information Bill

On fair play and the right of reply

“The media is the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent. That’s power.” – Malcolm X

I’ll go against popular sentiment and support Rep. Rodolfo Antonino’s proposal to include the right of reply in the Freedom of Information Bill, not only because it challenges media on a right it considers sacrosanct –  the exercise of sole and absolute control over what and who will get how much printed space, airtime, or bandwidth – but, more importantly, because it guarantees fair play. 

The argument of media against the right of reply is framed as a struggle between freedom of speech and oppression. 

    “Right of Reply is repugnant to any true democracy’s notion of independent media. A press that can be dictated upon to dedicate time and space to anybody who cries foul is as good as censored. It is not just that the finiteness of time and space makes equal time and equal space an impossibility in print, on air, or even online. More to the point, any attempt to legislate responsibility and fairness in news and commentary can only end up hijacking journalists of their editorial prerogatives. It will force editors to surrender to law the use of their own human judgment, and yes, their own scruples, their own vulnerable sense of ethics, to decide what is fit to print or air. Telling media what it must print will have the same result as telling it what it must not: It will have the effect of prior restraint, and of denigrating our Bill of Rights. Right of Reply, everywhere it has been experimented with and failed, is not manifest in fair reporting but in dictated tyranny, on a daily basis,” said a recent editorial in this website. (Interaksyon.com)

As an opinion columnist, the framing of the argument works fine for me. Freedom of speech gives me the editorial prerogative of writing on any issue. I can attack anybody and I am not obligated to surrender any of my column space to a response because to be legally obliged to give up some of my finite space would, in effect, be telling me what I can or cannot write. 

I have the Bill of Rights to back me up. I can build or destroy as I wish. I have that power and I’m only at the bottom of the media pyramid. Above me are the editors and publishers and above them, at the top of the pyramid, are the owners. They control the flow of information and opinion, they have the last word on what to disseminate or suppress. 

Media prefers to call the arbitrary power to decide what information and opinion to disseminate or suppress editorial prerogative but I call it censorship. Censorship or editorial prerogative gives owners of the largest news organizations immense power. They can set the terms and scope of the national debate because the rest of media, from second-tier outlets to hao-siao operations all the way down to blogs and tweets, feeds on their headlines and editorials. 

Does the marketplace of ideas function more efficiently under a self-regulating media oligopoly than a system of laws and regulations that mandates fairness? Is it healthy for democracy to have a one-sided conversation?

Gagging speech is a crude form of censorship. The more sophisticated way is to allow everyone to speak but only a selected few to be heard. That’s what media does when it exercises editorial prerogative and denies a victim the opportunity to air his side. It mocks the Bill of Rights and it undermines the principle of fair play.

Fair play is as vital to democracy as free speech. Fairness is what Rep. Antonino’s right of reply amendment is all about. It addresses the question why should a victim of shoddy reporting or a demolition job be denied the right to rebut the information or allegation that could damage his reputation and good name? Why should a victim have to look for another forum to air his side? Why can’t he have the right to defend himself in the same forum where he was maligned?

I am not arguing for the right of reply as a cover for what closet authoritarians call responsible journalism.  We all know that the meaning of responsible journalism is subjective – if you agree with the story then it’s fair and balanced and if you disagree then it’s biased and unfair – so I won’t cite numerous reports and editorials that I find irresponsible. Besides, I don’t believe a law mandating responsible journalism will work because responsibility cannot be legislated. But fairness can be. 

I support the right of reply because every victim should be given the right to air his side in the same forum where he was singled out. Rep. Antonino’s right of reply amendment gives media’s victims the wherewithal to defend their reputation and good name. 

    “Opportunity to Reply – Any person natural or juridical who came to be involved directly or indirectly in the issue publicly obtained (meaning obtained under FOI) must be given the opportunity to account for, explain, manifest or throw light upon the issue concerned in the following manner” – give equal space or time for a reply in the same printed space, on-air segment or online post where the information appeared, not later than three days after its printing, airing, or posting. 

The right of reply amendment is not an attempt to “hijack the editorial prerogatives” of journalists nor does it attack their  “vulnerable sense of ethics”. It is not a prior restraint ruse or a denigration of the Bill of Rights. It is victim-oriented legislation, it mandates fairness, it levels the playing field for the victim, it is not legislated oppression. 

How can giving a victim the right of reply be tantamount to the suppression of freedom of speech? How can the “finiteness of time and space” be cited as legitimate grounds to deny a victim the opportunity to defend his reputation and good name? 

Media cannot tell a person who feels maligned, “We would love to have you respond but we don’t have the time and space to carry your rebuttal. Pasensiya na lang, poh.” 

Time and space limitations are not valid grounds for evading accountability. If media wants to call Rep. Antonino’s amendment legislated fairness then so be it. Because if media will not play fair then it must be made to play fair. And that’s only fair. 

My only criticism of Rep. Antonino’s amendment is it grants the right of reply only to those affected by the FOI Bill. There are many victims of shoddy reporting and demolition jobs who have nothing to do with government and they will continue to have no recourse. But we can leave consideration of a stand-alone right of reply bill for a later time. 

For now, suffice it to say that Rep. Antonino’s amendment is about fair play. It is not against the freedom of speech because granting victims the right of reply fosters rather than stifles freedom of speech. It levels the playing field, it allows victims to be heard as loudly as those who own the means to be heard far and wide.

Let’s have freedom of information and the right of reply. Both or nothing. Democracy cannot thrive with one and not the other.

Predicting the coming labour shortage

When will the Philippines reach its tipping point?

Suck! That was the sound of jobs and investments being plucked out of the West and sunk into China. That was then.

As the world economy gradually recovered from the global financial crisis in 2010, there was talk of the People’s Republic finally having reached a tipping point that would see it transitioning from being a predominantly labour-surplus economy to one that suffers from labour-shortages.

Last week as the Benign One appealed to employers to give modest pay increases as a way of quieting labour groups following the May Day celebrations, authorities in China were for the first time entertaining the possibility of allowing their currency the Renminbi to appreciate to increase worker purchasing power and tamp down inflation.

Wages as a share of GDP in the People’s Republic had peaked in 1985 at 57% and then dropped to 37% in 2007 (making it one of the most capitalist big economies of the world). They are expected to rise steadily from now on. By 2020, a dramatically different picture will emerge. The words ‘cheap labour’ and ‘China’ may not hold together for very long; good news to the Western world which has been suffering enormous trade deficits with this manufacturing powerhouse from the East.

The shift from a predominantly young to an increasingly aging work force is the result of family planning policies instituted in the early-80s with the famously draconian one child policy enforced in urban centres being the most prominent among them. As the number of jobs available continues to outstrip their capacity to fill them, the Chinese communist party has increasingly allowed unions to exert their bargaining power in several sectors of the economy to prevent social unrest.

Today rising wage inflation and a demographic transition have some talking of a significant slow down in growth of the world’s second largest economy (from the 10 to 12 per cent experienced in the last decade to 7 or 8 per cent). Chinese wages are going to rise significantly over the course of the next decade. This will cause it to shift from an export driven economy to one that is mostly consumption driven.

The Philippine case for a tipping point

Because of the uneven distribution of human capital in the Philippines, comparatively higher wages and skills shortages in some areas exist alongside a substantial labour surplus. There are patches of skills shortage while large swathes of the populace are unable to find employment.

The record of job generation over the last twenty years has not been all that bad though. As I previously stated (in a piece entitled Jobless Growth: Fallacies part 2 posted last year in this space but no longer available): nearly twelve and a half million net new jobs were created compared to twenty five million in the US which has close to four times our population.

This led me about a year ago (in another piece entitled The Coming Labour Shortage posted in this space but no longer available) to predict when the country might approach a tipping point of its own. Using modest economic growth figures and a steady slowing of growth in the labour force (which have been observed over the past two decades) my optimistic forecast was for our transition to a labour shortage situation to begin as early as 2015/16.

The more realistic scenario I came up with is for the two to be in balance around 2020/21. Beyond that I predict that labour demand will outstrip supply (see graph right). Incidentally, the value of labour supply that I predicted for 2009 was off by 30 thousand from the actual growth that was recorded (it sounds big, but it represents only one tenth of one percent margin).

Had we consistently adopted a set of sound family planning policies as late as the 1990s, we would have seen a more balanced labour market. Unfortunately, reproductive health and family planning have not found traction in our country. It would be good if our leaders started focusing on the big picture rather than the daily to-ing and fro-ing over who wins in the daily 24 hour news cycle. I would much rather prefer a discussion about how to hasten the day when we no longer need to export our work force.

The good news is that even under the “do-nothing” scenario, we seem to be heading for a tipping point within a decade. The bad news is that this might lead us to think that we can sit back and literally, “do nothing.” A complacent administration might be content with maintaining current policy settings and engaging in populist rhetoric to gain short-term political wins. Unfortunately, this is too often the case.

As I mentioned last week in a three part series on the eve of the anniversary of his election into office, the presidency of the benevolent one has so far suffered from a lack of strategic focus. I laid out a case for the following:

As a result, the public that voted him into office has been experiencing what social scientists call cognitive dissonance or noise created by a deficit between what they were made to believe would come to them and what they ultimately experienced after buying into his candidacy.

The Employment Plan

The Employment Plan 2010-2016 released a few weeks ago aimed to create a net increase of one million jobs per year. It was a carbon copy of the past administration’s often missed policy goals. Unfortunately, we do not yet have a Freedom of Information Act that would allow us to scrutinize in minute detail the manner by which the government came up with this figure.

Is it plucked from thin air? Is it just one of those “stretch targets” as I suspect it is? Do they have detailed industry, occupational and regional breakdowns of these projections? If so, is there a coherent strategy for building the skills base in the right areas to avoid serious skills shortages as is already apparent in some occupations?

There is an oversupply of college educated graduates and not enough vocationally trained ones. The K-12 expansion of basic education hopes to address this imbalance by introducing school based training in the trade occupations by 2015-16. The lessons from advanced economies tell us that such training has to be continued by employers through an apprenticeship or on-the-job training program supported by the government.

Meanwhile programs to reduce school attrition like the cash payments to poor parents need to be put in place so that more and more primary students stay in school and are able to acquire enough skills to be gainfully employed. The upgrade of teachers, educational facilities and resources also requires funding. The role of former state polytechnics to provide a pathway from vocational education into higher education has to be defined.

Not enough energy has been spent explaining what these reforms would mean. Instead the president has been parrying allegations about his poor work ethic. Ten to twenty years from now, this will all seem so petty and meaningless. Today however it is on top of the agenda.

The year 2020 might seem so very far away, but it isn’t really. It is less than two presidential terms away. In the final analysis, if the Philippines were to follow in the footsteps of its East Asian counterparts in reaching a tipping point by then, it will only be because its leaders were willing to do the heavy lifting today.

BSAIII action plan on corruption

A Social Contract with the Filipino People

[scribd id=33543595 key=key-xy1sy29knppf6ju2h99 mode=list]
Action Plan on Corruption

Corruption is the main cause of poverty in the country and the reason why Filipinos have lost trust in government. Noynoy Aquino believes that corruption is not part of our culture and that Filipinos are honest, decent, fair and hardworking. Honest and competent public officers and a professional and accountable civil service supported by active people’s participation will remove corruption and restore trust in government.

As President, Noynoy Aquino will lead the fight against corruption and restore trust in government.

  • Noynoy Aquino will appoint public officials based on their integrity, qualifications and performance record and will hold them accountable to the highest ethical standards of public office.
    • As required by law, all Department Secretaries, Heads of Agencies, and senior officials from Director to Undersecretaries will be required to have their Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) available and accessible to the public.
  • An Aquino Administration will ensure transparency and citizen’s participation in crafting and implementing laws, rules and regulations and in monitoring the programs, projects and transactions of government.
    • Uphold the people’s right to information on matters of public concern and support the enactment of the Freedom of Information Bill in Congress.
    • To enable citizens to help stop corruption, information about the government’s budget shall be organized, packaged and distributed to the media regularly and posted in the internet so the public may know, understand and monitor how their money is spent.
    • Strengthen people’s participation with simple and clear procedures for citizens to monitor all government projects and report their feedback through accessible means.
  • Strengthening the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Office of the Ombudsman will be a top priority in the campaign against corruption. We will fully implement the recently passed Prosecution Service Act in order to strengthen the national prosecution service, attract qualified lawyers, and institutionalize a more effective witness protection program while improving training and equipment.
  • Ensure the independence of the Office of the Ombudsman by appointing a competent and credible Ombudsman who will be true to the mandate of the office and will pursue unresolved cases of corruption and human rights abuses committed by public officers.
  • An Aquino Administration will put into place a “zero-based” budgeting system to enhance transparency and improve efficiency.
    • Budget allocations for the different agencies of government will be shaped by their performance and their compliance with the reports of the Commission on Audit (COA).
  • Noynoy Aquino respects the professional bureaucracy and will establish ways to motivate and energize the professional bureaucracy.
    • Qualification standards, especially on eligibility, will be strictly followed, and at least half of the positions of Undersecretaries and Assistant Secretaries will be filled by honest and competent career civil servants to ensure continuity and sustainability of effective policies and programs.
    • Government offices will be streamlined and rationalized so that agencies have clear cut and distinct mandates in order to spur greater efficiency and accountability.
    • Performances of government agencies and civil servants will be evaluated rationally and systematically through an effective and measurable performance management system to be approved by the Civil Service Commission (CSC).
    • The Civil Service Commission (CSC) Performance Management System-Office Performance Evaluation System (PMS-OPES) will be linked with the DBM Organizational Performance Indicator Framework (OPIF) to ensure accountability of government agencies and officials.
    • Review the mandates and performance of government agencies and Government Owned or Controlled Corporations (GOCCs).

[Archived from the official campaign web site of President Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino III]

BSAIII action plan on the economy

Economy: Walang Maiiwan!

Action Plan on the Economy

Underlying all the problems and weaknesses of the country and the economy is corruption and the weakening of our democratic institutions. We will restore trust in government by emphasizing good governance and anti-corruption to increase investment, regain people’s trust to pay proper taxes and ensure that the people’s money is well spent.

  • We will uphold the people’s right to information on matters of public concern and vigorously support the enactment of the Freedom of Information Bill in Congress
  • We will ensure transparency and citizen’s participation in crafting and implementing laws, rules and regulations and in monitoring the programs, projects and transactions of government
  • We will put into place a “zero-based” budgeting system to enhance transparency and improve efficiency.
  • Budget allocations for the different agencies of government will be shaped by their performance and their compliance with the reports of the Commission on Audit (COA)
  • Qualification standards, especially on eligibility, will be strictly followed, and at least half of the positions of Undersecretaries and Assistant Secretaries will be filled by honest and competent career civil servants to ensure continuity and sustainability of effective policies and programs
  • Performances of government agencies and civil servants will be evaluated rationally and systematically through an effective and measurable performance management system to be approved by the Civil Service Commission (CSC).

We will have broad based and inclusive economic growth through increased incomes by generating quality jobs and attracting more investments.

  • We will have a government that is not corrupt and is business-friendly, thus lowering the cost of doing business and production in the country.
  • We will reduce red tape, reducing the number of processes required to do business in the country.
  • We will improve infrastructure in transportation and housing, which will generate jobs and also support investments.
  • We will directly target industries with the greatest potential for growth and where the Philippines has a competitive advantage, industries that have already been identified by domestic and foreign business groups and include agribusiness, business process outsourcing, creative industries, infrastructure, manufacturing and logistics, socially responsible mining and tourism and retirement.
  • In the immediate short term, we will take care of the most vulnerable and marginalized sectors of society through programs such as conditional cash transfers dedicated, among others, to keeping healthy young children in school.
  • We will promote entrepreneurship that provides employment, helping small and medium firms with access to credit and diffusion of technologies and skills.
  • We will focus investment expenditure in the very urgent need to invest in education (especially in early childhood education) and in health.
  • We will promote technical/vocational schools to strengthen the labor supply and better match the needs of enterprises.

A clean government will facilitate macroeconomic stability, reigning in the record level deficits of the current administration, and bringing down the debt-to-GDP ratio.

  • We will plug revenue leakages by having competent and trustworthy tax collectors, broadening the tax base.
  • We will instruct DBM to lead an internal government review of all its costs and present a plan to reduce government overhead within six months.
  • We will review policies and programs to enhance productivity and modernize the agricultural sector.

[Archived from the official campaign web site of President Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino III]